A Precious Narrative
By Cedar Sanderson
Storytelling is woven into human DNA. Even the discovery of DNA’s shape is enrobed in a thrilling tale of deceit and betrayal – with a sexist twist, of course. We tell our stories every single day. Some of us are very clearly aware of the delineations between fact and fantasy, and make our living spinning narratives others enjoy reading for the fun of it. Other people lose the boundaries between fiction and their own desires, and that’s where it starts to get, for lack of a better word, problematic.
I would argue that in order to exist in this world full of contradictions, some people must create an insulting narrative to keep them from confronting the harsh realities that surround them. Without that precious blanket (and you may also envision a thumb firmly inserted for sucking on) they might have to face truths they cannot accept. I’ve seen this time and time again. Heaven help you if you dent their story, because they will lash out in irrational anger. It really doesn’t matter if you can prove they are wrong and you’re in the right. That’s not what they feel is right.
Thus, the idea becomes that reality is an amorphous thing, moldable by the individual human as they drift through life, bumping into things and adding buffers at those sore spots. How did we get here, you might ask, and I’ll be asking it right along with you. Mark Gover of Michigan State University calls it an ‘intellectual cul-de-sac’ which seems very apt when we consider the dead-end results of basing ‘truth’ solely on one’s own desires. He states: “Similarly, the quest for an absolute ground of narrative, either as a structure embedded in the mind or as a stylized cultural tradition, is ultimately a crazy-making pursuit.”
We need, then, some kind of lodestone outside our selves to ground our reality. Observation, data, and analysis are crucial to keeping our unconscious daily narrative from becoming insanely out of touch with the world as-it-is, rather than the world as-we-desire-it-to-be. Even science is not immune to the creation of a narrative, when it ceases to question some particular that has become established as tradition. Aside from the current position that climate change is settled science, we can see the failings of science in the case of fat intake – demonized in the 1960s, through research that was funded by the sugar industry (JAMA, Nov. 2016) – and in shaky peer-reviewed papers that, well, sometimes are obviously not reviewed at all (there have been entire papers consisting of profanity, or thinly-veiled Star Wars references).
But still, science is the best solution we have to ensure that we are grounded and sane in the face of the narratives that come rushing at us daily with their contradictory claims. I know that I often say ‘data is not anecdote’ but it is difficult to deny the attraction of knowing that something works for/has happened to you, or even to someone you know well and trust. This is, after all, how word-of-mouth marketing works. The trust circle we surround ourselves with forms our narrative and reality, and if, say, your best friend posts on social media ‘I just read this great book!’ you are that much more likely to buy that book next time you are looking for something to read. It was good for your friend, and you know you like the same sort of books, so… and most of the time that works very well.
On the other hand, if your friend posts a meme from David Avocado Wolfe, and you just scan it and say ‘oh, RoundUp causes cancer? And I’ve seen ten other memes about that in the last week! It must be true.’ And I’m here to tell you that even Mother Jones has published an expose showing that the study published showing glyphosphate (active ingredient in RoundUp) was carcinogenic was based on flawed data, with proof that it was not cancer-causing being withheld by one of the main scientists.
Trust, but Verify. Relying on memes for solid data is a bad idea, but you wouldn’t know that from social media. Between confirmation bias making people click share before their brain has a chance to engage, and the phenomenon of ‘everybody knows’ the whole scandal over ‘fake news’ is simply human nature. Once that battle played out in yellow journalism, now it flashes across the face of the globe in an instant through the ‘intarwebs.’
Narrative is baked-in from birth. Family forms some, school takes over around the age of five (with preschool getting younger and younger these days, whether that’s good for children, or not doesn’t matter, it’s part of the social narrative that a child won’t succeed without pre-school). Increasingly, the narrative a child is told does not come from parents, but from teachers (or shall I say educators?), peers, the internet, and television. These have always been factors – or were, to some extent, but it is inescapable that in the Age of the Internet, just as in the Age of Steam before it, the revolution of technology has been overwhelmingly fast, and we are still processing the changes in our culture, and in our narratives.
Are the stories we tell true? How do we know? We must question, and listen critically to voices that are not telling us what we want to hear. When we take in the narrative of the media, we must ask ‘what is the bias?’ Above I mentioned the studies which led to low-fat diets, and possibly deleterious effects on the health of millions of Americans, were funded by the sugar industry. Who is paying for your news? What will they gain by telling this story? Dig down to see where the source of the story is. You’ll find, more often than not, a multitude of stories spring, like Zeus’ children, from the forehead of one journalist. Whether or not that original story was fact, or fiction. When a person wants something to be true hard enough, they unconsciously write that narrative, rather than the truth.
I keep hearing the cliche’d saying ‘there are three sides to every story. Yours, theirs, and the truth.’ Perhaps, but I find it annoying. Trained in investigation, I refuse to believe the implicit declaration in this: that the truth is unknowable. Instead, I think that with persistence, and evidence, truth can be known. If you are willing to accept that perhaps you are partly incorrect, and to admit that when you are, you can analyze the story and find the truth. If you are not willing to admit you may be wrong, then the truth is going to remain invisible to you.